Peculiarities of the English language Here I was, waiting to teach a ?Lets


Here I was, waiting to teach a 'Lets Learn English' session with the Pacific and Asian newcomers to Australia. I was to continue the conversational English lessons with them. The attendees were looking forward to the class. I could tell this by the enthusiasm in their greeting as they arrived and by their hunger to learn in previous sessions. What's more we were having fun as we journeyed into the English language together.

What's the biggest problem these students have I thought' The simple answer is 'the peculiarities of the English language, or more specifically'words.

So what are words anyway' They're just sounds or noises that we utter after all. Unlike lower animals we may not bark neigh, moo, roar, purr or growl, but we do react instinctively to what's happening around us; just as they do. If we stub our toe, hit our thumb with a hammer, get a paper cut, sit on a pin or watch our favourite sporting team score a goal we also react'often with sounds. These are symptoms of our feelings just as trembling is a symptom of fear. Words make us human.

We as humans learn to symbolise as soon as our cortex develops. We are able to see one set of impressions and let them 'stand for' something else if we call out 'look out, there's a snake in the woodpile' the sounds make sense to our senses. It is simply a matter of interpretation of all of the symbols we use to communicate, the most powerful and the most critical being words.

But words only make sense when they represent or indicate experiences. What we call communication takes place when we know what the message is. We know to keep alert around the woodpile because there's a snake in it. But the meanings of the words are in the minds of the people who send them more often than those who hear them.

The whore of languages, English has opened itself to French, Norse, Greek, Latin, Celtic dialects, different African, Polynesian and Asian languages and merged all of this into a polyglot of sounds making words which in turn make meanings. But pity the newcomer. How to explain that we see the sculptor, the artist, the cartoonist, the actor, the playwright, the novelist, the singer, the musician all clumped into a mass we call 'art'. Try explaining 'art' to a new English speaker. It's a peculiar language alright.

So, the question for a TESOL teacher to answer is--- is the meaning of a word in the word itself or is it in the minds and collective experience of the hearer'

Back to the class. The students were all punctual, keen and open- eared, wanting to learn this peculiar thing called English. Armed with notebooks and their trusty dictionaries we set off on some word discovery meanings.

The mighty dictionary is a best friend for any language student. Three cheers for the lexicographers. But English is peculiar. I recall hearing once that the 500 most commonly used English words have something like 14000 meanings. Have a look for yourself try 'cut', 'lie',' table','fast', ´run' and 'tick', You may be surprised at the options. The dictionary isn't so much a set of regulations for correct usage as a book of etiquette giving us the different sorts of choices in which we might expect to find the words used.

So, while the dictionary can assist us explore different meanings and can reassure us that we are using them not too differently from other people, it doesn't always help improve understanding between people. We must use language to demonstrate that we know how to use words that both the sender and the receiver understand. Without this, we will not understand each other. Words will just be sounds.

Meaning is in the mind of the receiver. It's the sender's responsibility to get the meaning of the message across. The challenge is finding the words that achieve this.

It sure is a peculiar language.

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